The house that friendship built

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Many would-be construction sites sit silent during these days of economic gloom, but the ring of hammers striking nails, the whine of power drills and the sound of laughter roll through the parking lot of A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless.

A one-story structure mounted on cement blocks at the edge of the lot is much more than a school project. The three-bedroom, two-bath modular home, its insulation still exposed under a partial layer of tan vinyl siding, is more like a house that friendship built.

"This program brings friendships out," Steve Singer, 17, a junior at North Hills High School, said of the Beattie students who are building the house. "We wouldn't have met kids from other schools if we weren't in it."

The technical school serves students from Avonworth, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel Area, Hampton, North Allegheny, North Hills, Northgate, Pine-Richland and Shaler Area school districts. Students working on the house are in carpentry/building construction and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning classes at Beattie.

About 15 carpentry students developed bonds that carried them through bitter winter days working shoulder to shoulder, warmed by a space heater.

"These guys have had to shovel snow from the subfloors and chip ice to be able to work," said carpentry instructor Jim Sproat, of Middlesex. "Along with the work of actually building a house, they learn what the [real-world] work environment will be like."

Every year since the mid-1990s, Beattie students have built a home from the ground up, frame to shingles and all the trim in between, said assistant instructor John Brown, of North Versailles.

The house is a roughly two-year project, so two houses usually are in progress at any given time, but this year only one house is being built due to space constraints because Beattie is undergoing renovations.

The students started work on this house in November 2007, and it is expected to be ready to be moved the third week in May, although a firm date has not been set.

The houses are put up for sale, with bidding beginning at the cost of materials. This year, the Greater Pittsburgh Council of the Boy Scouts of America bought the house for about $38,000, said John Debbis, A.W. Beattie Cooperative Education coordinator. The house will be moved to Camp Twin Echoes, a 300-acre reservation in Ligonier used primarily for Scout training.

Mr. Brown said all of the students become student members of the Builders Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, and most have plans for construction jobs or post-secondary education.

"About 90 percent of this year's grads have something to go to," he said, noting that Pittsburgh's housing market is relatively stable. "They have the upper hand because they were here."

Mr. Sproat said, "A lot of contractors call us, and we don't have enough kids to fill the demand."

In the master bedroom, North Hills seniors Jack Haley, 17, and Dave Knotts, 18, use a tape measure to measure for carpet. "I like doing different things every day. It's not just sitting in a classroom," said Jack, who has a construction job lined up with Scheidemantle Corp.

"It's a learning experience," agreed Dave, who plans to attend Community College of Allegheny County.

The house is a hive of activity for half of every school day. In the living room, two students fine tune and rewire electrical outlets; in the bedrooms, several paint-splattered students roll and brush the walls with white paint. Students pepper Mr. Brown with questions as he oversees the operation.

Deer Lakes High School seniors Mike Jones, 18, and Jonathan Probst, 17, agreed that framing the house was their favorite part. "I like to see it going up," said Mike, who plans to join the carpenters union. "You see something take shape." Their least favorite part? Drywall, the two said in unison.

"You have to make sure the finish is nice and smooth," explained Jonathan, who plans to attend the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Mike added, "Plaster takes time and patience."

The patience pays off for one lucky family or organization every year when they get a well-built house for a fraction of the cost of a professionally built home. Before construction begins, the house is advertised in local newspapers with general specifications.

Past houses have gone to UPMC Passavant and the Town of McCandless, although most went to private owners, Mr. Debbis said. The buyer pays moving costs.

Purchasing the house solved a big problem for the Boy Scouts, said Boy Scouts executive Mike Serbaugh. "We've got a dedicated, young, year-round, ranger-caretaker who doesn't have a family but probably will someday. The home he lived in was really not suitable."

"The quality of workmanship is very high," he said of the house. "We felt if you're going to buy a modular home, this is the best one you can buy."

The logistics of moving a house across a couple of counties' worth of state highways and rural roads led to problems only an organization as practical and coordinated as the Boy Scouts could handle.

"If you didn't have Scouting friends to cut you a deal, moving the house would cost almost $15,000," Mr. Serbaugh said. As for digging a foundation, running utilities and building a septic system, "ordinarily we have a lot of volunteer labor, but this time we will use a contractor," due to scheduling issues, he said.

Although buyers can ask to have the house designed to specifications, the Boy Scouts did not. All of the students must learn computer-aided drafting to design homes, but this class looked to Shaler Area junior Josh Chatham, 17, as their CAD expert. "Josh shows a great aptitude for CAD," Mr. Brown said.

Steve Singer and C.J. Busha, 17, a Shaler Area senior, persuaded Mr. Brown to allow them to work without electrical tools for about two weeks.

"We were talking about how the Amish do things and thought we'd try it," Steve said. "We built a stairwell with a handsaw, manual screwdriver and hammers, until Brown told us to hurry it up."

The students work in all kind of weather.

"As long as the conditions are safe, if it's not lightning, we're out here working," Mr. Brown said. "They might whine about being out in the weather, but they actually love it."

Matthew Freezan, 17, a junior at North Hills High School, broke his arm while playing football, so his participation has been limited to go-fer and cleanup duties. "I wish I could be working," he said.

"Friendship is an issue in the construction field," said Steve, nodding at his classmates clustered around him in the home's rough walled, temporary hallway. "Without it, you can't get anything done."

Freelance writer Jennifer Kissel can be reached in care of .


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